Sri Lanka is currently experiencing two crises which will trigger the third. They stem from a common source and therefore can be resolved only if rectification takes place at that source, that root.
One crisis is the second wave of COVID-19. It is manifest and acknowledged but its dimensions are played down and the sins of commission and omission which led to it are unspoken. Another is that of our external relations. That crisis is latent, but not entirely invisible, and is completely unacknowledged. The third crisis, which is building up, is the economic.
The common root of the failure to prevent or manage these crises is the error in policy perspectives, stemming from the error of policy paradigms, sourced in wrong thinking, wrong attitudes and outlook.
None has been more consistently accurate in print about the corona crisis than Dr. Ravindra Ranan-Eliya. In his latest article entitled ‘Reaching the Limits of Managing the Crisis’ he goes to ‘code red’ and tells us what is at stake.
“As a country, we’re in a moment of great peril. More than at any time during this pandemic.
Unless we shift course, single-mindedly focus on the critical issues, and make the correct decisions and implement them decisively, we face not only an out-of-control epidemic, but economic disaster…”
He compares us unfavourably with the other places that have experienced a second wave. “…We should have understood that we were…in a much more dangerous epidemiological position than that faced to date by the successful countries…none of these other nations (sic)– China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Vietnam – have seen such a large outbreak since crushing their first waves.” (Ibid)
Dr. Ranan-Eliya tells us this second outbreak was entirely predictable. It was not primarily the fault of the public, as President Gotabaya charged at his conference on Sunday, 1 November. Dr. Ranan-Eliya gives a rational explanation: “In Minuwangoda, we were dealing with cases in people living in numerous different locations, living with other people, and with all the normal types of interaction with friends and family that we have taken for granted since we were told that COVID-19 was defeated in our blessed island. The subsequent rapid spread of the outbreak to numerous locations across the island, several becoming new clusters of their own, was entirely predictable.”
If it was predictable, it was preventable. What is most crucial is the huge hole Dr. Ranan-Eliya points out in the thinking of those in charge:
“…as I wrote months ago in this newspaper, we were not in the top category of countries tackling COVID-19, whatever international agencies told us. We need to look at how the really successful countries have managed this and learn from their strategies…”
Back in mid-May 2020 Dr. Ranan-Eliya and his team processed the data coming from Johns Hopkins and produced coloured graphs that showed the actual state of things. (‘“Eliminating” … “crushing” COVID is possible and these countries are the Superstars,’ Daily Mirror, 15 May). We weren’t among the ‘superstars’, but the regime regarded itself as right on top.
“Seek truth from facts” was Deng Xiaoping’s motto (deriving from Mao). By contrast, the Lankan regime does not see the need to “look at how the really successful countries have managed this and learn from their strategies…” because it is an article of faith that Sri Lanka under the present leadership is the “really successful country”, and it is felt to be more important than anything else to keep the faith in this postulate, whatever the empirical evidence to the contrary. Nobody dares to contradict the model, still less “learn from the strategies” of “the really successful countries”.
The current Sri Lankan model is one which is derived a priori from a sense of superiority stemming from a fusion of having won the war (falsely billed as the only or the first victory over terrorism, at least in the 21st century—ignoring Putin’s crushing of the Chechen terrorists and Angola’s defeat of Savimbi’s Unita) and the innate supremacy of the Sinhala-Buddhist culture, civilisation and way of being. To question the results on the basis of evidence, acknowledge defeats and failures, and “shift course” as Dr. Ranan-Eliya urges, is to question the sacrosanct model itself and verges on heresy and treason.
This is evidenced by two recent controversies. The first was a joint statement by a group of women’s organisations and labour organisations (including one I recall, founded back in 1984, the Dabindu collective) about the insensitive and arbitrary character of the military evacuation of women workers for quarantine. It was unexceptionable that the military contradicted the story, though it would have been a far better ‘hearts-and-minds’ civic action approach to have a (Gen. Kobbekaduwe-like) friendly dialogue with the signatories.
What is potentially most dangerous is that the military statement proceeded to venture the hypothesis that the criticism could be the precursor of a conspiracy to come: “…apparently to suit different agendas of interested parties or those who act as forerunners of hidden plans of action”. (https://economynext.com/sri-lanka-army-dismisses-fabricated-attempts-to-tarnish-quarantine-efforts-74901/)
The danger here is that if any legitimate criticism is deemed suspect because it is critical of the guardian deity, the military, and the openly stated presupposition is that such ‘disinformation’ could only spring from subversive intent, then the response will inevitably be repression, which will not only polarise the social and political situation but impact negatively on Sri Lanka’s international image, thus damaging our export markets.
The upshot of the rough and clumsy handling of this matter is that it has since made the international labour publications such as Ecotextile magazine. (https://www.ecotextile.com/2020102026880/materials-production-news/garment-workers-accuse-sri-lankan-army.html) Since then, it has made the mass media mainstream, Reuters. (https://in.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-sri-lanka-workers/garment-workers-on-front-line-of-sri-lanka-coronavirus-outbreak-idUSKBN27K08Z). Furthermore, a large number of Sri Lankan academics in universities overseas have signed a statement expressing concern about the fate of women workers during the pandemic.
As a former Chairperson of the ILO who worked with the iconic Director-General Juan Somavia (comrade of the late Salvador Allende) when the ILO launched the famous ‘Decent Work’ campaign, I know how perceptions of maltreatment of labour, which simply cannot be kept hidden, impact on public opinion and legislators in those parts of the world in which labour standards and the treatment of labour matters.
The second symptom of the downside of the militarist-ultranationalist model was from Welioya. It was alleged by the GMOA that a military officer verbally abused a doctor at the district hospital, and did so in utterly racist terms (reproduced in the GMOA statement). The doctors went on strike.
There is a growing contradiction between scientific rationality and the model. Government doctors have protested against the introduction, contrary to protocols, of the ‘Sudarshana paniya’ (syrup) by Prof. Channa Jayasumana, into State hospitals as treatment against COVID-19. Prof. Jayasumana was in the forefront of the “Dr. Shafi” campaign.
Why isn’t Prof. Neelika Malavige, holder of six medical degrees—five from the UK, including a DPhil from Oxford—award winner for dengue research, and Executive Committee member of the International Society for Infectious Diseases (ISID), not the head of the anti-Corona Task Force rather than an occasional participant at the President’s meetings and research team leader behind the scenes?
Such an eminently rational choice would be at variance with project of military-centric dominance over the citizenry, overthrowing Sri Lanka’s long-entrenched democratic tradition of civilian supremacy.
The root of regime unreason lies in a long post from the Facebook of one of the most influential figures in the Gotabaya camp, a Gotabaya confidante and an architect and of the successful GR presidential project. I refer to someone with whom I have enjoyed a most cordial acquaintance, the youthful media magnate and charming corporate personality, Dilith Jayaweera.
In October he delivered a speech and posted a long tribute on the 75th birthday of Prof. Nalin de Silva, currently (and most appropriately) Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Myanmar and one of the two founders of Jathika Chinthana (‘National Thinking’) which shapes the ‘Gestalt’ of the GR camp’s collective mindset.
Dilith’s longish post has a key sentence referring to his first encounter with Prof. Nalin de Silva’s ideas: “It [the lecture] was titled ‘Vidyaavey Kalaava’ and you so convincingly imparted the idea that modern Western science cannot inspire new thinking. It just encouraged one to by-heart subjects to pass exams.” (https://www.facebook.com/dilithjayaweeralk/posts/2811612132404554)
This illustrates why the universalist outlook and methodology of science is not the guiding light of the Gotabaya camp and regime. Their guiding doctrine is that there exists such a thing as “modern Western science” which “cannot inspire new thinking”. Jathika Chinthana is an intellectual version of QAnon.
While there is such a thing as ‘modern science’ and there are Western, Eastern, Northern and Southern contributions to science, some of which, quite unfairly, are ignored or downplayed sometimes, there is no such thing as “Western science”. There is science. Which is universal. If anything is universal—and universalist, as well as universalising—it is science.
What is so-called “Western science” counterposed to? Eastern science? And what is the superior alternative to “modern Western science”? “Ancient Eastern science”? Though justly proud of their own contributions to science, China, Japan, India and Vietnam certainly do not use the category ‘Western science’ to distinguish it from any other brand of science, and they do not regard “modern Western science” as one in which you are “just encouraged one to by-heart (sic) subjects to pass exams”—which is why top Asian, and especially Chinese, scientists have been educated at elite Western universities, institutes and centres.
Russia, which has produced a vaccine against COVID-19, has done so through “modern Western science”. Cuba, which has made contributions to advanced medical science, has not done so with a notion which rejects or is critical of ‘modern Western science,’ which is why, in the midst of the US embargo, US medical institutions are in Cuba, working on joint projects.
There is no country which has rapidly modernised and developed while holding such absurdly negative notions of a construct they call “modern Western science”.
As for its alleged inability “to inspire new thinking,” the three most respected (and widely disparate) thinkers in the world today, Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson, are products precisely of “modern Western science” in the broadest sense and in their respective fields.
Inspired by Jathika Chinthana —a perfect example of what Nietzsche extensively described and denounced as expressions of “ressentiment” (resentment)—no wonder the regime does not do the scientific thing of studying the lessons of those anti-Corona ‘superstars’ so as to apply these ‘best practices’ in Sri Lanka.
The quintessence of the model and ethos of the Gotabaya regime is weaponised Jathika Chinthana; Jathika Chinthana militarised.
Here is an extract from the report on Mike Pompeo’s South Asia and the US interaction with Sri Lanka and its President, which appeared in Nikkei Asia, a mass media giant which actually bought up the iconic Financial Times (London) and has a vast and influential audience from North America to the Far East:
“US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has laid the groundwork for an ideological contest in Sri Lanka and the Maldives that Washington is spoiling to wage against the Chinese Communist Party—between democracy and tyranny. …The tone Pompeo struck has put the elected governments of Sri Lanka and the Maldives on notice regarding global diplomatic currents…
…US President Donald Trump’s administration has been ratcheting up its security strategy by closing ranks with India, Japan and Australia—influential democracies along the Indian and Pacific oceans…The ideological choice that Washington is asking Sri Lanka and the Maldives to make comes with both countries beholden to China…In Sri Lanka, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pushed back against Pompeo’s China-bashing…Sri Lanka is not caught in a Chinese debt-trap, the hawkish Rajapaksa said…” (‘US counters China in Sri Lanka and Maldives by driving a wedge’, Nikkei Asia, 30 October).
This is as good as it gets for the GR presidency in the relationship with the US. It sure isn’t going to get any better anytime soon. If things are this difficult with a Trump administration which President Gotabaya and his base identify with, it sure is not going to get any better anytime soon. The Secretary of State of the Republican administration that the GR camp supports, has decided to make the cut along the lines of democracy vs. ‘the Chinese camp’ as defined by a tilt to the Chinese model/doctrine. A Democratic administration would broaden the democracy vs authoritarianism issue far more than did Mike Pompeo, and add ultranationalism to the target list.
The contemporary US foreign policy thinker I find the most interesting, Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s former Deputy National Security Advisor, a progressive Democrat and critic of the Hillary Clinton foreign policy establishment he famously and derisively dubbed ‘The Blob’, writes that “China is expanding its influence and selling its techno-totalitarian model of government as an alternative to liberal democracy.” (The Democratic Renewal, Foreign Affairs Sept/Oct 2020)
Thus, on the issue of China’s ‘expansion’ of its ideological and systemic influence, there is a bipartisan consensus in the USA, which in turn is in an upgraded alliance with India, Japan and Australia. The ideological-systemic choice that Sri Lanka is being asked to make will remain an issue and sharpen. So how is Sri Lanka placed?
The most recent Banyan column of The Economist, a magazine read by almost all world leaders, is dedicated to the Gotabaya presidency after the 20th Amendment, and would influence the perception of the global elite however fractured and paralysed it currently is. The Economist’s Banyan column is entitled ‘Gotabaya, caudillo’ and anyone who knows anything about Latin America knows that in the bad old days, Latin American ‘banana republics’ had dictatorial ‘strongmen’ called ‘caudillos’.
The strap under ‘Gotabaya, caudillo’ says “Sri Lanka’s President is amassing personal power’ (which is the title carried in the link). Another edition of the same issue (31 October) of The Economist runs the column with the caption ‘Sri Lanka’s President is amassing personal power’ while the strap reads ‘Constitutional amendments make Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s authority almost absolute’. The Banyan column’s first paragraph ends with “…creating a near-absolute presidency with the 20th Amendment”. The column itself concludes with a de-coding of the Gotabaya ethos, and a projection of the coming Constitution, as follows:
“…Mr. Rajapaksa has made explicit the link he sees between an all-powerful state and the centrality of Buddhism, whose more chauvinist priests he courts. Of the 66 ministers only three are Tamils and just one is a Muslim (there is only one woman, too). The message is stark: in the ethno-nationalist state, everyone must know their station.” (https://www.economist.com/asia/2020/10/31/sri-lankas-president-is-amassing-personal-power)
Given our geopolitical relevance, most world leaders may have read that. Obviously Sri Lanka’s President and his inner-circle were utterly unmindful about how the 20th Amendment would play on the global screen. Doing so would transgress the involuted, narcissistic Jathika Chinthana faith of the new Establishment.